Christophe Weblog Wiki Code Publications Music

One of the (perhaps) surprising things about academia, at least in the UK, is that people with job titles such as “Lecturer” or “Professor” need not have any qualification, or indeed training, in teaching.

In fact, the academic career structure positively seems to incentivise against teaching: the typical route to a permanent academic job (there is no such thing as tenure in the UK any more – see e.g. this article – but we do have employment rights) is through one or more postdoctoral research assistantships, where the job consists of 90% research, guided by a “Principal Investigator”, and 90% hustling for the next postdoctoral research assistanship. In some cases, typically RCUK-funded positions, these research positions are allowed to incorporate a small amount of teaching for career development (six hours a week or so); EU-funded positions explicitly exclude anything that’s not in the work programme, and enforce that through rigid project management.

It’s not just the route that leads to a permanent academic position that incentivises against teaching, though: I think it’s fair to say that while lip-service might be paid to putting research quality and teaching quality on an equal footing in universities in general, the overwhelming perception is that research income, through grants or consultancy, trumps most other things: perhaps because research income is an immediate, unarguable number that appears to sustain the university’s activities (even if in principle each RCUK-funded “full Economic Costing” grant in fact is a loss to the institution – in practice the utterly untransparent “overheads” make that point moot). To be fair to academic managers, they too are victims in the academic career structure, just a couple of steps ahead: it’s not like the academic career structure incentivises learning to manage large, bureaucratic institutions either.

A new academic year is just starting, again, and the feeling of impending doom before the insanity that is the Autumn Term hits does prompt a certain amount of reflection. This year, though, I got my reflection in early: having enrolled in a postgraduate certificate in teaching and learning last year, and just about scraped the attendance requirements, I found myself on my holidays with a deadline for three essays. Yes of course I had known about the deadline all year, and of course I had had the opportunity in principle to have a tutorial on my topics – the irony was palpable as I e-mailed to check, wistfully, that the deadline was immovable, immutable and non-negotiable. (Of course it was.)

In the end, though, I did manage to write the essays: one on plagiarism, one on blogging, and a longer one (though still only about 2000 words) on structured discussion. While I’m sufficiently self-confident to feel that they’re potentially of interest, if HE pedagogy is your thing, I’m a lot less confident that they deserve a passing grade: if I were playing this game with an eye to winning I would have cross-checked the documented learning outcomes for each assessment with identifiable, obvious points to make the marking easy, and instead I wrote them in somewhat of a hurry (not quite on the day of the deadline, but...).

A couple of minor technical points might also be of interest to posterity. I wrote the essays in markdown, rather than my normal flow of starting in org-mode – in part because they started off as notes in my wiki anyway, and it was natural to expand them into essays in situ. In this case, they ended up as pandoc-flavoured markdown (since I had to generate PDFs for submission), rather than ikiwiki-flavoured, so the wiki versions will probably look a little bit odd (there is pandoc support for ikiwiki, but that’s a bit beyond the call of duty for now. In any case, it was not too much effort to convert the wiki pages into content suitable for submission, so that was nice; it’s probably just about topical to mention the new standard common markdown (obligatory obligatory), which would not have helped at all, lacking as it does several of the features I actually used (footnotes, title metadata), though I suppose effectively the rest of the text was effectively written in CommonMark.

Having written an essay where I conceded that the use of Moodle, the particular Virtual Learning Environment used at Goldsmiths, would have been beneficial and appropriate, I then had to use Moodle for the submission, and was instantly reminded why I avoid using it in the first place: it may have certain affordances for group cohesion and discussion, but that doesn’t stop it from being painful to use. Oh well.

I get feedback and module results in November. I wait with bated breath...